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Statue of Britannia and British flag on top of Stormont building. Alamy Stock Photo
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Opinion The DUP in this election began to look like the lost tribe of the British Empire

Peter Flanagan says the election in Northern Ireland has shown that Loyalist and British values are no longer the same.

LAST UPDATE | May 6th 2022, 10:51 AM

LOYALIST AND BRITISH values are no longer the same thing. For the first time since the foundation of the state, as vote counting begins this morning, Northern Ireland could potentially be set to have a nationalist First Minister. Changing demographics in the North only tell part of the story.

The Democratic Unionist Party – the largest party in the state for almost two decades – has alienated moderates throughout the election cycle with its retrograde politics and an unconvincing vision for the future. In a sense, they have become the lost tribe of the British Empire, their beliefs a capsule of a less enlightened time.

There are superficial similarities between the DUP and the Brexiteers across the Irish Sea, but it doesn’t go much deeper than flag-waving. With the exception of perhaps Jacob Rees Mogg – who paradoxically is both a devout Catholic and what most Catholics imagine when they think of an 18th-century absentee Protestant landlord – most Tories would wince at the DUP’s record on abortion and gay marriage. These arguments were put to bed on the mainland a long time ago – the rest of the United Kingdom has moved on.

Life in the UK

Despite the regressive tendencies and kinky self-flagellation of Boris Johnson’s government, Great Britain remains a pluralist, secular society. There’s plenty to like about life here. Those of us who came of age during the banking crisis or the global pandemic will understand the difficult relationship Ireland has with its young people, and the unequal burdens we are too often asked to bear during bad times.

The UK isn’t without its problems, but there is a reason why so many of us have emigrated here en masse for generations. London is one of the world’s great cities, its artists remain on the bleeding edge of Western culture, while the NHS and the BBC, though imperfect, are still world-beating examples of what can be achieved by socialised medicine and public service broadcasting.

None of what makes the modern United Kingdom a great place to live can be articulated by the DUP because their model of ‘Britishness’ is a sad, diminished relic. The DUP leadership – which still has Creationists in senior positions – no longer relates to their cousins across the water, and the feeling is mutual.

The average Brit I chat to here has little to no clue about the constitutional arrangement between Britain and Northern Ireland. There is certainly scant knowledge of the multi-billion subvention paid by the British taxpayer to keep the lights on in Stormont every year. They look at it as the cost of a round bought for randoms they befriended at a bar the previous evening – they know it was a lot but they’d rather not know how much.

It’s not that English people don’t like Northern Ireland, they’re just not particularly interested. A united Ireland does not represent the kind of existential threat to the Union that an independent Scotland would. Edinburgh and its institutions are embedded in the fabric of British society in a way Belfast isn’t. The relationship between Scotland and England itself was a voluntary union in the first instance, based on a cynical economic calculation by the Scots.

Ireland, first colony

Ireland was always different. It was one of England’s first conquests, a laboratory of colonialism where it fine-tuned the techniques of oppression it would go on to employ across the Empire. Four centuries since the Ulster plantation, it’s unclear what purpose the region has left to serve London. Britain admitted that it has no economic interest there over 30 years ago, and the cultural link is hanging by a thread.

Nevertheless, support for a United Ireland remains actually quite low in the province. Recognising this, Sinn Féin did not make it an issue going into this election. Instead, they focused on everyday issues like healthcare and the cost of living crisis.

Under the proportional representation system, this shift could make Sinn Féin much more transfer-friendly today to the supporters of other parties than they have in the past.

The DUP’s pitch to the electorate, meanwhile, remained firmly rooted in the politics of panic, calling on a pan-unionist response to defeat the hated Northern Ireland Protocol. It remains to be seen whether the party’s traditional followers this time around buy into the post-Brexit narrative.

Throughout the election campaign, DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson appeared at rallies alongside hard-right Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister and called on Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beatie to do the same. After Beattie refused because he feared these demonstrations would heighten community tensions, his constituency office window was smashed and a noose was hung around one of his election posters. There is no suggestion the two are linked but it served as a reminder of tensions ahead of the election. This came after Simon Coveney’s visit to Belfast in March to discuss peace-building was disrupted by a Loyalist bomb scare, not to mention the now-infamous loyalist riots from last year.

If bomb threats, street violence and Creationism sound dated even by Northern Irish standards, then by British standards they are prehistoric. The Britain that hard-line unionists are loyal to no longer exists. They have begun to look like the Japanese soldiers discovered still fighting on remote islands decades after the Second World War: ageing and hysterical, their battle was lost long ago.

Only time and votes counted today will tell if the voting public in Northern Ireland is still with the DUP. Some have dubbed this Stormont election a game-changer – not only the first possible sign of an Assembly with a Sinn Féin First Minister but the moment politics in the north could shift away from the traditional tribal two parties. Either way, no one can deny this has been one of the unusually interesting and energised elections in Northern Ireland for some time.

Peter Flanagan is an Irish comedian and writer. You can find him on Twitter at @peterflanagan.

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